Saturday, May 9, 2015

With One Magic Word...

Art by Evan "Doc" Shaner

When I was a young boy and discovered the multi-color world of comic books that would destroy bring joy to my life for many years, one of my first reading pleasures was DC's Shazam! comic starring the original Captain Marvel and his family of characters.  While I was still getting in the comic book gang and wrapping my head around Superman, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman, et. al., Captain Marvel was something different. He and the world of wonders and weirdness he resided in were different from any other comics on the ol' squeaky spinner rack. Unlike Superman with the pseudo science of yellow suns and lighter gravity explaining his power, Captain Marvel's abilities were a gift of magic. And the recipient of that gift was a young boy named Billy Batson.

Now that was a bit of wish fulfillment. Oh yeah, as a kid, it would've been cool to have super powers but I understood that with great power comes great responsibility.  I knew that before I ever read Spider-Man. So you say a magic word and became an adult to take care of what needed to be done; then it was back to being a kid again. Yeah, I could deal with that. 

Lately there have been a couple of projects that have really recaptured that sense of magic and wonder I felt reading
Shazam! all those years ago. One of those was part of Grant Morrison's Multiversity project. (Click on yesterday's menu item for my post about that.) Thunderworld Adventures brought back a thrill that I hadn't felt in a long time. If a grown man reading comic books is about holding on to a part of my youth, this was one book where that worked.  

Art by Cameron Stewart

Then we got another take on our Marvels with the
Shazam! tie-in to Convergence. Jeff Parker, writer of the amazing Batman '66, is in his element here. And if there was ever to be a Shazam! series of this type, don't make me pick between Cameron Stewart & Evan "Doc" Shaner. Both expertly capture the bright colorful world we associate with the Marvel Family yet both deliver in their unique ways art that is detailed and nuanced. 

Art by Evan "Doc" Shaner

I am curious if the sales numbers on Thunderworld Adventures and Convergence: Shazam! would lead DC to consider an ongoing series of this type? Some of the chances DC is taking with their line up suggests they may be open to it. 

Unless they think there would be some confusion with this guy. 

Art by Gary Frank 

I don't want to dismiss the work of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank out of hand. They created a Billy Batson who has all the issues one would associate with a teenage orphan. Billy has a temper but in his heart, even if he doesn't always see it, he tries to be a good person. And the conceit that the adult with the super powers is still young Billy Batson? An interesting perspective. The classic Captain Marvel did portray Cap and Billy as different people. 

But this new guy isn't Captain Marvel, is he? 

If you're reading this (thank you, by the way), I assume you know the murky historical soup that surrounds Captain Marvel. Long story short: Marvel has their own Captain Marvel and the name belongs lock, stock and barrel to them. DC can call the World's Mightiest Mortal by the name of Captain Marvel all they want but it better not show up on a cover. 

Hence, Shazam!And the thinking goes, if the book's called Shazam!, let's just call our hero Shazam! and be done with it. I'm still not sure that's a really good fit. I think I would rather see the character go back to the very appearance when he was called Captain Thunder. And then was told to stop.  

Poor guy can't catch a break, huh?  

For now in the main DC Universe, Billy's alter ego is called Shazam!

But creators trying to move the Marvels towards a more serious bent is nothing new.  

Below are a couple of pages by Kurt Shaffenberger and Bob Oskner from the 1970's Shazam! comic.  

Art by Kurt Shaffenberger

Art by Bob Oskner 

And for more on my not all pervy interest in this particular Mary Marvel story, click to this post from 2013

But the watchword for comics in the 70's was relevance, not escapism. Captain Marvel and friends came back to the world in 1974 and were immediately out of touch with the world. Less than expected sales in the already challenged market of the 1970's led to Shazam! becoming a quarterly reprint title. However, the launch of the Shazam! TV show prompted interest in putting out some new stories. Writer E. Nelson Bridwell was tasked with sending Billy Batson on a tour of America to emulate the travelling done by this TV counterpart. 

But for a comic based on a live action TV show, the art in Shazam! became increasingly cartoonish. I think the notorious inker Vince Colletta was erasing ALL of the backgrounds. And I guess the sales didn't pick up even with the TV tie in. So a new direction was taken. 

Shazam!#34 was illustrated by Alan Weiss and Joe Rubinstein and talk about an abrupt whiplash transition in style. But the next issue produced what I consider one of the most perfect single issues of a comic book ever. 

Penciller Don Newton came on board with a style that was serious and detailed. But he was paired with classic Captain Marvel artist Kurt Shaffenberger and the result was, to my mind, a perfect melding of old and new. Get a load of this splash page from their debut issue.  

Art by  Don Newton, Kurt Shaffenberger & Cornelia Adams

And writer E. Nelson Bridwell to his credit delivered a perfect story for bridging these two styles. 

It was a shame Shazam!#35 was the last issue of the series.

Still, Bridwell and Newton with Shaffenberger and other inkers kept this approach alive when the series moved to World's Finest Comics. The magic of Shazam! for a modern age, Bridwell explored elements of the Marvel Family mythos while Newton's art brought a new found depth to the proceedings even as the Marvels remained recognizable.  

All good things must end and the pairing of Bridwell & Newton came to a close and the Captain and the rest of the Marvel family were cut adrift. 

After the Crisis on Infinite Earths had reduced multiple Earths into one, it was decided that Captain Marvel needed a new origin linked to the DC Universe, not the almost magical world in their own universe that the Marvel's called home. 

So that leads to this.  

Art by Tom Mandrake

Writer Roy Thomas with his deep and abiding love of comics history would seem a perfect choice to bring Billy and the Captain back to prominence. But while Thomas hit a lot of good notes, mostly this series played out as a noir soap opera. Tom Mandrake's art was perhaps a bit too dark. Don Newton could do "dark" too but still a kept a sense of wonder about the Marvels.  

I think the mistake a lot of people have made with Captain Marvel is they approach the character as derived from a child so he must be engaged in childish things. 

The early Marvel Family stories published by Fawcett through the 1940's and into the 1950's did have lots of elements of whimsy and silliness. But no more, really, than any other super heroes wore capes and could fly. But don't let the clean art and bright colors fool you. This is not just kid stuff. 

Art by CC Beck

Over the years, Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family have been batted back and forth like a volleyball with variations on the classic style from Jerry Ordway & Jeff Smith and then more "serious" interpretations like whatever that 12 issue thing Jeff Winnick wrote was. 

The thing is finding that balance of having fun with world of Shazam! and being respectful of it is a very tricky thing to do. E.Nelson Bridwell could do it as did Jerry Ordway with his Power of Shazam series. But not a lot of other writers and artists can. 

Now we've had virtually back to back books with writers and artists who "get" what Captain Marvel and his cast are all about. And it makes me think, I want more of this! 

Art by Evan "Doc" Shaner

These stories represent the Shazam! I want, the Shazam! 
we deserve.  While I have zero expectation that Grant Morrison would stick around for more stories of Cap and the gang but c'mon, Jeff Parker could do it. Read his Agents of Atlas at Marvel. Read his Batman '66. I don't think his Convergence issue is a fluke. Paired up with Doc Shaner, if we saw an ongoing Shazam! series from these to, I most certainly feel...

Art by Evan "Doc" Shaner

...that lightning would strike! 

Everyone, be good to one another. I'll see you back here tomorrow.


Tomorrow wraps up Comic Book Week here on the blog and since Sunday is when I usually post a Doctor Who thing, let's take a look at some Doctor Who comics. 

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